Shredding the Constitution

Reacting to yesterday's Gonazales hearing, even Josh Marshall finally discusses impeachment:

Though other events in recent months and years have had graver consequences in themselves, I'm not sure I've seen a more open, casual or brazen display of the attitude that the body of rules which our whole system is built on just don't apply to this White House.

Without going into all the specifics, I think we are now moving into a situation where the White House, on various fronts, is openly ignoring the constitution, acting as though not just the law but the constitution itself, which is the fundamental law from which all the statutes gain their force and legitimacy, doesn't apply to them.

If that is allowed to continue, the defiance will congeal into precedent. And the whole structure of our system of government will be permanently changed.

Whether because of prudence and pragmatism or mere intellectual inertia, I still have the same opinion on the big question: impeachment. But I think we're moving on to dangerous ground right now, more so than some of us realize. And I'm less sure now under these circumstances that operating by rules of 'normal politics' is justifiable or acquits us of our duty to our country.

No, Josh, I don't think it's ordinary prudence or pragmatism or intellectual inertia. I think some of it is working in an environment that rewards logic and caution; some of it is a belief in logic ("reality based," if you will) as an overriding system. Academics are prone to such things, and are famous for not seeing the forest for the veins on the leaves.

Most of all, it is a blind faith in political process as an inherently self-correcting mechanism. It's a reluctance to engage on substantive issues that may conceivably carry a heavy price.

But the purpose of impeachment is not to convict, nor to score a political victory. James Madison was clear on that: It is to stop the abuses of the political process.

George Mason argued that the president might use his pardoning power to "pardon crimes which were advised by himself" or, before indictment or conviction, "to stop inquiry and prevent detection." James Madison responded: "[I]f the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty."

I keep thinking about Barbara Jordan's speech regarding the articles of impeachment on Richard Nixon, given 33 years ago yesterday:

My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total; and I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.

She was a black woman from Texas who lived long enough to see the Constitution protect and defend her to the point where she became a member of Congress. She knew that the strength of our nation lies in the concept that even the lowliest person in America is equal to us all in the eyes of the law.

These men who have taken over our country and defiled our Constitution are, to use an old-fashioned word, evil. They are covert, hidden. They avoid the light of the day like the vampires they are. It is time to expose the actions they have taken in secret.

"We know the nature of impeachment," Jordan said in a speech that is still considered one of America's finest. "We've been talking about it awhile now. It is chiefly designed for the president and his high ministers to somehow be called into account.

"It is designed to bridle the executive if he engages in excesses. 'It is designed as a method of national inquest into the conduct of public men.' The framers confided in the Congress the power if need be, to remove the president in order to strike a delicate balance between a President swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the executive."

After listing Nixon's alleged offenses, she concluded:

James Madison again at the Constitutional Convention: "A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution." The Constitution charges the president with the task of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, and yet the president has counseled his aides to commit perjury, willfully disregard the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, conceal surreptitious entry, attempt to compromise a federal judge, while publicly displaying his cooperation with the processes of criminal justice. "A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution."

If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.

Has the president committed offenses, and planned, and directed, and acquiesced in a course of conduct which the Constitution will not tolerate? That's the question. We know that. We know the question. We should now forthwith proceed to answer the question. It is reason, and not passion, which must guide our deliberations, guide our debate, and guide our decision.

It's time to answer the question, Josh. Is the Constitution anything more than a piece of paper? Are we a nation of laws - or are we a nation of cronies?

History will not judge us kindly if we let this pass.